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Interview with Sri Madhu Pandit Dasa

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Excerpts from an interview with Sri Madhu Pandit Dasa:, Chairman of World’s largest NGO run School Meal Program, Akshaya Patra.

Question: Why the name Askhaya Patra to the mid-day meal program?

Sri Madhu Pandit Dasa: The divine vessel ‘Akshaya Patra’ of Mahabharata symbolizes unlimited portions that can feed countless mouths. But this ‘vessel’ sought a few willing human hearts, minds and hands to feed ONE MILLION everyday.

Question: To whom all do you attribute this success of feeding one million everyday?

Question: Why the name Askhaya Patra to the mid-day meal program? Cooks, cleaners, drivers, guards, supervisors, managers, donors, government authorities, advisors, board members and missionaries were all inspired and activated to make this possible.

Question: What really motivated you to initiate and make this movement so successful?
Sri Madhu Pandit Dasa: When we began we had not the slightest idea of this scale. But someone was watching within all of us and noted our wanting to do more and more and willing to battle everyday to beat the hurdles. He kept opening new paths , kept fanning our spirits , pushed us bit by bit up the scale of feeding more and more children month after month and year after year .

As His grace fell on a million children, we were graced with great lessons too. That, big things can be done when what is to be done is greater than all of us and that God helps those who help themselves, especially to help others beyond themselves. He gave that extra direction, that extra support, that extra determination and fanned the spark of desire to feed a blazing ONE MILLION! He took us that extra distance we never conceived of when we started. And He rewarded our humble efforts by fulfilling our ever growing dream. Blessed are we who could experience this.

Question: How do you think this movement will bear an effect on the society?

Question: Why the name Askhaya Patra to the mid-day meal program? One thing is certain from this experience. Boundless compassion is waiting to explode into this world to lessen the suffering provided we involve more and more willing human hearts, minds and hands to deliver His blessings upon many more millions in the years to come. We are determined to seek out for more and more such willing people out in the world who do not know that many more millions mouths are waiting for the blessing to transform their lives. Their smiles will transform our lives too.

A pride that humbles us, yet spirits us to reach our next target of five million.

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Food and Education

The Gravity of Education

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What is the meaning of education? Why is it necessary that every child below 14 years of age go to school and get educated? How would this impact the child’s life? If a child goes to school then who will help out with work? This is probably the thought process of a parent from a marginalised background when you tell her/him that their children rather go to school than work in the fields.

Though this is 2014, many regions and communities in India are of the opinion that education is not as important as making two ends meet. This is mainly because their exposure to the importance of education is not sufficient. Organisations like The Akshaya Patra Foundation play the role of a catalyst and carry this message to such remote regions in the form of mid-day meals to be distributed to school children. Through these initiatives, and provisions like the Right To Education (RTE) Act, the Government of India has made constant efforts to tackle issues of malnutrition and illiteracy.

In order to support and incentivise education, the Supreme Court of India, in the year 2001, directed all State Governments to introduce cooked mid-day meals in primary schools. Philanthropists and non-profits like The Akshaya Patra Foundation have ever since adopted the Government mid-day meal scheme and implemented it in thousands of schools across India. But despite these efforts, reaching out to a large portion of the population from vulnerable backgrounds remains a challenge. Various factors like social and economic barriers obstruct the transmission of such awareness to these strata of the society. It is very difficult to break these age-old barriers built over centuries, and transcend the message across.

In the year 2002, The Constitution of India included Article 21-A that mandated free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years as a Fundamental Right. Furthermore, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, under Article 21-A, states that every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards.

gravity-of-education_akshaya-patraHowever, there is enough proof that the efforts of the Government combined with those of philanthropic groups, backed by major social reformation initiatives can change the face of literacy and nutrition in rural areas.

During one of the visits to an Akshaya Patra beneficiary school in Adugodi, Bangalore, we witnessed an incident. A young girl in civilian clothes walked into the school principal’s office with a box of sweets. On enquiring further, we were told that the girl is a former student of the same school. She was here to share the news about her getting a job and to thank her teachers for imparting education to her. The girl was about 18 years old. She had accomplished her Pre-University education and was recruited by a bank for a clerical position.

Narrating a similar incident, Raffath Unnisa, a senior teacher in another Bangalore-based government school said, “There was this boy I taught in school years ago. He was highly interested in studies and was good at it also. But one day he didn’t show up at school and missed many consecutive days after that. On investigating the matter, we found that the child’s grandmother wouldn’t let him study. Since he was the only male child in the family, she preferred that he work in the fields with his parents than attend school.”

The dedicated teacher then approached his parents and explained to them how important it was for their son to study. It took her a few more visits to convince them to send him back to school. “Today he is all grown up and works for the Income Tax department,” exclaimed Unnisa with pride. These incidents validated the fact that the efforts of non-profits like Akshaya Patra yield noteworthy results only because of complete support from the Government.

sanitation-and-hygiene

Government schools across India have various resources and facilities for children like qualified teachers, hygiene and sanitation, safe drinking water, mid-day meals, spacious play areas, libraries, computer and science laboratories, school uniforms and so on. One of the ways to reach out to the remaining children (especially girls) in our country who are not attending school yet, is by improving facilities like sanitation and hygiene. Another important method to address the school enrolment and attendance issue is creating awareness in economically underserved communities about the gravity of education.  The more people understand the seriousness behind education, the better will it serve the future of India.

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Food and Education

World Food Day 2013

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World Food Day is observed every year on October 16 by many organisations concerned with food security and nutrition. The theme – “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition” gives focus to World Food Day observances and helps increase understanding of problems and solutions in the drive to end hunger.

Akshaya Patra Foundation running the world’s largest NGO-run mid-day meal programme participates in this World Food Day 2013 with the initiative to create awareness about the need of the hour of food and education to millions of less fortunate children in India. It’s because more than one third of the world’s malnourished children live in India.

The foundation is not just about feeding 1.3 million children with mid-day meal every day; it’s about providing them nutritious meals for their growing mind and body. Sharing the theme on World Food Day, the organisation believes in the sustaining its operation in order to feed 5 million children by 2020. A mission that can only be achieved if we garner the contributions of all well-wishers, supporters, volunteers, donors.

Let’s observe World Food Day 2013 together and join our cause of providing food for education every day. Let’s build a promising nation of well nourished, healthy and smart children.

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Food and Education

World Food Day

World-Food-Day

World Food Day was declared by UN in 1945, to be observed on 16th of October every year. With an important goal of spreading awareness on issues behind poverty and hunger, every year UN adopts a theme for this day. The theme is intended to highlight the areas that needs action to provide a resolution to the situation related to poverty and hunger.

The theme for the current year being “agricultural cooperatives – key to feeding the world” recognizing the role agricultural cooperatives play in improving food security and contributing to the eradication of hunger. An FAO document gives a complete account of how cooperatives contribute and their importance. Please click the link for same.

Click here to read more Akshaya Patra Kitchen Garden: En-route to Quality Nutrition

Adopting many measures as per the themes such as ‘food and nutrition‘, ‘the right to food‘, ‘united against hunger‘ are quintessential for India due to the hunger crisis in the country. 2011 hunger statistics declare India in state of emergency yet again and India’s score is same as it was in 1996, even though there has been overall decline, decline itself is marginal. There are many initiatives adopted by the government and by philanthropic organisations in India to over come the issue. However, this obviously is not sufficient.

Akshaya Patra started in 2000 with a simple thought that children must get education and hungry children cannot really focus on education and it works against physical and mental abilities of the child to sit in classroom when hungry. It was decided that Akshaya Patra will feed children in schools thus attracting more children to school and retaining them in school through regular one hot nutritious meal on every school day.

Today Akshaya Patra serves mid-day-meals to over 1.3 million children and envisions feeding 5 million children every day by 2020.

We really wish that many more initiatives are taken up by the government and every individual in the society as it is our social responsibility to ensure that our fellowmen have their rights assured. We extend our hands to organisations that need support in running services similar to Akshaya Patra.

We really hope that we as a nation see a light of the day when hunger has been eradicated in India and we hope that our service is not even required by 2030!!

Join such causes, support Akshaya Patra and be the catalyst. Donate today and do your bit on World Food Day!!

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Food and Education

Kitchen Garden: En-route to Quality Nutrition

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Lush green farm, chirping sparrows, farmers busy reaping – this is just another country-side farm but with a difference!

Inflation making the headlines combined with the unseasonal rains, increased vegetable prices and thereby increased cost of cooking, is a story every household in the country is familiar with. For The Akshaya Patra Foundation which feeds millions of children everyday, the impact is all the more challenging. To address the situation to an extent, The Akshaya Patra Foundation runs an organic farm 55kms away from Jaipur. The kitchen garden programme is a pilot project; the land was taken on lease in April 2010 and dehydration and green house have been set up.

The 15 acres of land yields about 90 tonnes of vegetables a year. These vegetables are then dehydrated and stored in the go-downs. During the off-season, when the prices of vegetables soar, these vegetables are used for cooking, thus bringing about cost efficiency and at the same time ensuring that the continuously given nutritive food.

The health advantage comes from the fact that the meal is cooked from a variety of vegetables that are not available during the off-season and also because these vegetables are grown by kitchen garden methodology. Spinach, cabbage, carrot, broccoli, radish and peas are grown on a rotation basis all through out the year. Manure which is acquired from the Vermi-compost ensures a good yield. The Neem extracts are used as insecticides which alter insect’s behavior or life processes in ways that can be extremely subtle. Eventually, however, the insect can no longer feed or breed or metamorphose and can cause no further damage.

In addition to adopting kitchen garden, the farmers in the nearby areas are also educated and trained on it. Many of them have already started implementing kitchen garden practices. The produce from these farmers is then bought by Akshaya Patra. Hansraj Mali, a local farmer says in addition to reaping the benefits of kitchen garden, they are reaping better financial outcomes, “Since Akshaya Patra buys the produce directly from us and we are spared from the work of transporting all the produce and finding a vendor. Moreover we save on the money which we used to pay as commissions.” A talk with the farmers reveals that they have resorted to using cow dung as manure and say that the soil structure has improved. A few years ago they used fertilizers which during the course of time had a negative impact on the soil fertility.

The farm is still in its inception phase and has long way ahead. But with a project like this, the organisation is setting a foot to address the challenge of classroom hunger at the same time ensuring quality nutrition around the year with no compromise, be it inflation or missing monsoon.

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Food and Education

Helping thousands everyday

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It was in 2005, that The Akshaya Patra Foundation began feeding children in the city of Mangalore in the district of Dakshina Kannada. At that time children from two schools enjoyed the hot nutritious mid-day meals. As the word-of-mouth began to spread, more schools in the region wanted the mid-day meals served by the Foundation. In spite of challenges related to space and technology, the Akshaya Patra kitchen began functioning to the maximum capacity by feeding more than 5,000 children. It involved a lot of man power. In about a year’s time, in 2006-2007, The Akshaya Patra Foundation shifted its kitchen to another rented space. The shift ensured that a few of the processes could be mechanised and today the kitchen is a semi-automated one.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation at Mangalore feeds more than 25,000 children in 145 schools. The Unit President, Sri Karunya Sagar Dasa, says, “We reach out to schools in a radius of 30 Kms. Schools in Talapady, Mulki and even to B C Road in the neighbouring district of Bantwal. The menu consists of boiled rice, sambar , rasam, tomato rice, pulao and sweets like payasa.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation being sensitive to the needs of the regional palate includes the traditional food of each region in its mid-day meal menu. In the coastal region of Karnataka boiled rice is the staple diet. To feed the thousands of children, Akshaya Patra’s kitchen in Mangalore cooks rice in about 20 cycles and sambar in 3 cycles. This involves the workers to come as early as 4:00 a.m., and if there is payasa on the menu, they have to come an hour earlier. In spite of the early working hours, the employees who work at the kitchen do not complain. They say, “We understand that our work helps thousands of children.”

Ratna J Suvarna, an employee who has been with Akshaya Patra for over six years says, “As I live on the banks of the Gurupur river, I have to come by boat which runs at half-hour intervals. As I climb from the boat, I am greeted by many children who go to the local government schools and all that they ask me is about the menu of the day since they know that I work for Akshaya Patra.”

Today as thousands of children relish the mid-day meal and talk about it at their homes, the good word about the contribution by the Foundation has reached far and wide. Schools from places like Udupi and Moodabidri have requested The Akshaya Patra Foundation serve mid-day meals in their schools. But due to constraints of space and also Government permission, the kitchen has not been able to support the request. As in the words of Karunya Sagar Dasa, “Our immediate need is a sanction from the Government for allotment of a land so that we can build a three-tier centralised kitchen capable of feeding more than 100,000 children.”

*Statistics as of July 12, 2012

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Food and Education

Timing is everything while cooking

ramesh-mysore

The steam heated cauldrons in Akshaya Patra’s Mysore kitchen are capable of preparing 100 kgs of plain rice within 15 to 20 minutes. This poses a special challenge when making some of the more complex rice dishes, such as tomato bath or vegetable bath, which are children’s favorites. Timing is everything when cooking on such a large scale.

M. P. Ramesh, who has worked with the Akshaya Patra’s kitchen in Mysore for nearly 5 years, is responsible for ensuring that the texture and flavor of food prepared is at its best. He knows exactly how long the rice should be cooked, when the spices need to go in and how much water needs to be added to give it the right taste and consistency. From 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. when cooking in the kitchen takes place, Ramesh carefully oversees every item that goes into the cauldrons.

“We have to put the right ingredients in at the right time. Careful adjustments need to be made to the heat and amount of water poured into a cauldron; otherwise the texture of cooked rice is affected. Children are always particular about these things, and if you don’t get it right, they won’t find it tasty,” explains Ramesh.

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Food and Education

The satisfaction in feeding children

ratna-mangalore

Ratna can single handedly clean the 2 tonnes of boiled rice that Akshaya Patra’s Mangalore kitchen uses everyday. That amounts to approximately 50 bags, each one containing around 50kgs of rice. It is a part of Ratna’s job to make sure that all that rice is cleaned thoroughly before cooking.

She says people always ask her why she goes to so much trouble. Her husband co-owns a boat and is a successful fisherman, so why the need to work so hard?

“I tell them,” says Ratna, “that it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know I do this for children. My work means a lot to me. This is something that is all my own, and I love my job,” she says with a radiant smile.

Before a mechanised rice cleaner was installed, she used to clean all the rice by hand, sifting through bag after bag in preparation for the following day’s cooking. It has become much easier for her now that there is a mechanised machine, but she explains that there is still a second round of cleaning to be done. “We have to make sure there are no particles at all in the grains,” she says. “Children won’t like finding them in the food. We have to be very thorough.”

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Food and Education

‘The duty of serving children is noble’

Nandan-Acharya-Dasa

We serve 1.3 million children everyday with freshly cooked food as a secular, non-governmental organisation (NGO) helping children. That means employing hundreds of people throughout the country and empowering scores of women. At the corner stone of this colossal effort, spearheading the Foundation on its ambitious mission to serve 5 million children by 2020, is missionary zeal. Missionaries’ unending dedication has been instrumental in transforming Akshaya Patra from a small pilot program to one of the largest non-profits in the world, implementing one of the biggest school lunch programs in history.

Nandan Acharya Dasa, who oversees day to day operations of Akshaya Patra’s Mangalore kitchen, knows well the kind of dedication and effort employees put in to serve children. Before a cold storage unit was installed in the kitchen, he says, they used to stay up into late hours of the night cutting vegetables in an effort to keep them as fresh as possible before cooking.

“Because,” he says, “Mangalore weather is very humid. They would not remain fresh for long if they were cut and left outside. Freshness of produce affects taste. We have to make sure that the food is as tasty as possible. Children will make out the difference very soon.”

On a tour of the premises, he explains, how kitchen employees used to lift heavy, fully packed steel containers of food, carrying them from the kitchen to waiting food vans before they had a conveyor belt installed in the system.

A newly acquired rice cleaning machine has helped clean rice more efficiently and faster. Through all the challenges they have faced, however, they have kept one thing in mind, says Nandan Acharya Dasa – “The duty of serving hungry children is a very noble one, that’s what we always try to remember”.

*As of April 2011

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Food and Education

Loading food for nearly 780 schools in Hubli

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It would be natural to assume that after all the freshly cooked food has been packed into steel containers most of the work in the kitchen is done. But as Mallesh H.K., Loading Supervisor explains, this is not the case. Our Hubli facility has 35 food vans travelling on specific routes around the Hubli-Dharwad region, each one distributing food to an average 22 schools per route. Determining the number of containers and amount of food that each school along a route needs, is one of the challenges Mallesh must address everyday. The containers need to be packed to optimise time spent at every stop, because with so many schools to be covered, each van has little time to waste when they arrive at the schools.

Mallesh underwent one week of training which included on route travel as well as kitchen work and then worked for a year on routes before becoming a loading supervisor.

“Our route supervisors collect information from every school about how much food we should deliver for the next day, based on approximately how many children will be attending. They fill in a form which contains all the schools in the route and the projected number of containers of food each school needs. This is then consolidated into a separate sheet for all routes,” he says pointing to a sheet which contains details such as the number of schools per route, the total quantity of rice, sambar, curd or sweet that is required (depending on the menu for the day).

Written in the rows of a consolidated tracking sheet are the names of each route around the Hubli-Dharwad region. Its columns represent the quantity and type of food. “If there is 25 written in the column headed 50% under ‘Rice/Palav‘ on a row containing the name ‘Mugad’, we’ll know that for the Mugad route in the Hubli-Dharwad area, a food van must have a total of 25 steel containers packed only to 50% capacity of rice or palav,” he explains. The containers come in large, small and medium sizes, he adds and all of them will have been labeled the previous evening with a corresponding route name and required quantity.

The loading and distribution processes have been perfected over time, says Yagneswar Das, who heads the entire operations of the facility. They recently optimised the number of routes needed to cover all schools, bringing it down from 38 to 35. “We all got together and decided to make it more efficient,” he says. “The route optimisation was done by us, in-house,” he says. We use optimisation techniques not just in distribution, but also in the actual cooking processes to reduce costs. Akshaya Patra’s all India cost for one meal is just Rs. 6. Today, for every rupee donated to the Foundation, 9 paisa is spent on administrative costs.

Mallesh and his team work diligently everyday, adhering to a strict schedule to ensure food vans leave on time. When their day is over, they will have loaded a total of 5000 containers into all 35 vans.

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